Pottstown officials demand answers after rumors spread over Philadelphia homeless encampments

Philadelphia is planning to shut down areas around Kensington and Allegheny avenues on Wednesday.

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Street shot of Kensington

A notice of clearing of tents and possessions on May 8, 2024 posted in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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As Philadelphia prepares to shut down homeless encampments in Kensington, officials in surrounding counties are expressing concerns that the planned sweep will bring more unhoused residents to their communities.

Philadelphia’s latest plan has received mounting questions and criticisms — from harm reduction advocates, City Council and now officials outside the city’s limits.

On Wednesday, the city plans to shut down parts of the intersection at Kensington and Allegheny avenues from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for what Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker has called the “encampment resolution” plan.

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In the final stage of a month-long process, outreach workers will be tasked with engaging unhoused individuals to relocate, while removing tents and other hazardous materials that obstruct sidewalk access.

But where unhoused individuals will be going after leaving Kensington has officials in neighboring communities concerned. In Montgomery County, state Rep. Joe Ciresi said that county officials have been trying to meet with the Parker administration to understand their encampment plan, and communication has stalled thus far.

“We’ve reached out to the City Council, the mayor’s office and the police commissioner,” he said. “We haven’t heard back yet, but we’ve asked to meet with them and have a conversation.”

That meeting, Ciresi said, would be to determine whether Philadelphia’s plan to remove homeless encampments includes sending people back to their original counties, which has been proposed as one of several solutions.

Ciersi said that sources within Montgomery County have verified such relocation is already happening on a smaller scale in the Borough of Pottstown.

“We were told that there are people coming out of Kensington and coming to Pottstown,” he said. “I love Mayor Cherelle, I think she’s been the best person for that job. But if these people have nowhere to go and we’re not setting up resources in Philly … [Pottstown] would be one of the places, and that’s what we don’t want.”

The city’s Office of Homeless Services already has a relocation structure in place under its voluntary Stranded Traveler Assistance program. Parker’s office would not provide a comment at this time, but WHYY News received the following statement from Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services:

“The Office of Homeless Services has no intention of sending people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness from Kensington to Pottstown or anywhere else in any other counties. OHS has always provided a one-way bus ticket Stranded Traveler Assistance Program to anyone who is experiencing homelessness and asks to be reunified with their out-of-town family. The program is part of the OHS Homelessness Prevention, Diversion & Intake Unit’s regular suite of services.” 

Pottstown Council President Dan Weand is not convinced.

“We’ve been aware for years that people had been vacating Philadelphia and moving West,” he said. “We have our own fair share of homeless people who are from our Borough. We don’t need an influx of outsiders.”

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Pottstown has been under a microscope for its handling of homeless encampments since being sued in a federal case last December. Weand has also been a long-time opponent of volunteers or churches providing temporary shelter or meals to Pottstown’s homeless population.

“We get a lot of criticism from outside groups saying that we’re heartless. We have no feelings for these people. That’s totally untrue,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the borough would take measures to identify out-of-county individuals who would choose to relocate from Philadelphia, but Weand suggested sending them back.

“I can tell you there are some residents here that would be willing to pay for the bus tickets to send them home,” he said.

Pottstown Mayor Stephanie Henrick reiterated she also was made aware that unhoused Philadelphians were migrating to the Pottstown area. Her office is monitoring the encampment sweeps in Kensington closely, and is hoping to communicate with the Parker administration soon.

“We are not a dumping ground,” she said. “We are trying to solve our local immediate problem right here. And all we want is some cooperation with the people that are on the same side as us — just keep people in the loop.”

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